Some people don't tolerate well some of the ingredients in cheese. Made from milk, the lactose can affect some negatively even though the amounts in cheese are much lower than in the base product. The whey - the liquid part that forms when milk curdles - contains most of it and is separated off during the cheesemaking process.
Others simply don't care for the taste or are looking for a bargain. Gourmet cheeses, especially those imported from another country, can be expensive. Many are an acquired taste, just like a fine but unusual wine. Some, such as strict vegetarians, prefer to avoid any animal-based products but still enjoy the taste.
A large number are concerned about the high saturated fat content of some cheese and are looking for an alternative. Cheese can be relatively high in fats encouraging the development of bad cholesterol and contains substantial amounts of sugar. Along with low-fat cheese, there are non-dairy products that can help fill this need.
For all those people, there are cheese substitutes.
Among the genuine health benefits of real cheese are the high quantities of good protein and calcium. Caseins in cheese break down during digestion and can provide the entire range of needed amino acids. The amount of calcium in cheese varies by type, but it can provide anywhere from 20% or more of the daily recommended minimum. A single ounce of cheese supplies a little over 200mg.
But it's possible to obtain these benefits with cheese substitutes. Soy, nuts and some of the oils used in these products contain vegetable proteins that can supply at least some of the needed amino acids in a very healthy form.
One possible drawback, however, is their differences when used in cooking. Soy cheeses don't melt in the same way, since their fat structure is different. But they can be great for salads, spreads and other prepared food choices.
Some cheese substitutes are made from a 'milk' derived from almonds. Tasty and sweet, these non-animal products serve as a good substitute for many looking to maintain a vegetarian diet. Exercise caution, though, since almonds are relatively high in fat. Consuming large quantities can be as calorie intensive as regular cheese.
On the upside, almond-based cheeses are low in sodium, melt well and often taste very similar to regular cheese. When used in cooking, they aren't rubbery and can make a nice spread when warmed. Most are low in sugar. They are not made with rennet (an enzyme produced in cow's stomachs), so strict vegans will find this an advantage.
Tofu-based cheese substitutes are a popular choice. Ricotta style cheese is especially amenable to tofu as a base. The crumbly texture is very similar to the real thing and the taste can easily be enhanced with herbs. But there are many other styles, as well. Parmesan, Mozarella, even cheddars can be made from tofu.
Many who think of 'cheese substitutes' have in mind some plastic-like processed nightmare. But there are many products which use alternatives that are both tasty and nutritious. Explore!